By Merab-Michal Favorite, Islander Reporter
Owners of the BeachHouse Restaurant have opposed a motion to list Bradenton Beach as the defendant in a lawsuit filed against the mayor, saying the mayor bears all the responsibility of alleged wrongdoing.
Robert Lincoln, the attorney representing BeachHouse corporate owner ELRA Inc. and its owner, Ed Chiles, has opposed a motion from the city to substitute parties and to dismiss portions of the lawsuit filed in February against Mayor Bill Shearon.
Charles F. Johnson, of Blalock Walters, representing Shearon on behalf of the city, filed a motion to substitute parties March 3, arguing the real party interest is the city, not Shearon, and the lawsuit should reflect that.
However, Lincoln responded that the city isn’t the problem and substituting parties would not make sense. Lincoln did not return phone calls from The Islander.
ELRA’s lawsuit challenges a pattern of past behavior and statements made by Shearon. It alleges he overstepped his authority and has a conflict of interest in another ongoing lawsuit, Meilner-Martin v. ELRA-Bradenton Beach, to terminate a development agreement between the city and ELRA for a parking lot on the beach.
Johnson alleges the city charter provides for a weak-mayor system of government and claims that Shearon has tried to remold the position to reflect his position.
According to Paul Ferber, part-time city resident and former political science professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, the biggest difference between the two systems is that in a strong-mayor system, the mayor has the authority to hire and fire the department heads.
“Only the full commission has the power to do this in Bradenton Beach and, thus, what we clearly have here is the weak-mayor system,” Ferber said in an email.
However, the ELRA suit alleges Shearon was acting as a “strong mayor” when he threatened department heads if they failed to provide evidence to sway the commission to deny the development agreement.
Shearon has denied those allegations.
“I was elected by the people to run the city in the best way I can,” he said. “They seem to have a problem with how I’m running the city and thoughts about how I should be running the city, yet, neither one of them live here. Maybe they should move here and run for mayor.”
If Shearon where part of a strong-mayor government, he would have more executive authority over the city and would not be able to vote on the commission, according to Ferber.
At the March 20 commission meeting, Vice Mayor Janie Robertson motioned to reaffirm the mayor as the administrator of Bradenton Beach as described by the city charter and employee handbook.
However, her motion died for lack of a second. Robertson asked if the city would adopt an organizational chart in the future, and Shearon said that was his intent.
The lawsuit also alleges that Shearon has a conflict of interest in the Meilner-Martin lawsuit, which originally listed Shearon, fellow planning and zoning board member Jo Ann Meilner, and Shearon’s partner Tjet Martin as plaintiffs.
Shearon withdrew from the lawsuit after winning the November municipal election, but ELRA claims Shearon still has a conflict because his significant other, Tjet Martin, remains a plaintiff.
Shearon said that while he and Martin are a couple and run a business together, they are not legally married and do not share bank accounts.
“She is funding the lawsuit on her own,” Shearon said. “I pulled out of that lawsuit before I was sworn in and have not spent a dime of my money on that case, therefore, there is no conflict of interest.”
The ELRA v. mayor lawsuit also alleges the mayor violated Florida’s Sunshine Laws through email communications. It also alleges he spoke with Meilner privately on city business in 2012 when they both served on the P&Z board.
Meilner denied any wrongdoing, saying their conversations were not about agenda items, merely a friendly exchange between colleagues about routine items.
“They are reaching here,” she said. “They must be desperate if they are throwing around these accusations. Bill and I never discussed city issues outside city chambers.
Shearon said that while he has no animosity toward ELRA, there has been a perceived difference of opinion concerning the lawsuit.
“What’s really disappointing to me is that they could have come and talked to me about this disagreement but, unfortunately, there has been a lack of communication on Mr. Chiles’ part,” Shearon said.
“With all the problems facing the city, (the lawsuit) is a waste of my time and taxpayer money,” he said.